The digital realm has brought us, among other things, an awareness of Digital Rights Management (DRM) files and a case against the music-sharing platform Napster.  These and similar issues have served to implant the matter of copyright into the public psyche in a way that it had not been seen before.  But the last ten days have seen an even more heightened sense of awareness of copyright in the public eye.  On January 2nd, Kevin Smith, the Scholarly Communications Officer at Duke University, posted a blog about the repercussions of the 1976 Copyright Act.  He explains in very clear language why the works of American authors entered the public domain in other countries on January 1st while they will remain protected by U.S. copyright until 2019.  However, unpublished works are protected only for 70 years after the death of the author, so the unpublished works of authors who died in 1943 are now in the public domain — which means archives can freely digitize and publish online any letters or other unpublished works of donors who died in 1943 or before.  (This list of people includes Stephen Vincent Benét, George Washington Carver, Beatrix Potter, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Simone Weil.)

Television has also gotten onto the copyright bandwagon.  The Good Wife aired an episode on January 5th entitled “Goliath and David” that gave a very thorough explanation of derivative and transformative works of music in light of copyright protections.  And on the same evening, The Simpsons aired “Steal This Episode,” in which Homer was tried for publicly showing pirated versions of movies.  Perhaps archives and libraries should take advantage of this heightened awareness of copyright issues and make this a time to update donor agreements to reflect what sorts of materials will be unavailable to users due to copyright restrictions, to educate patrons about the impacts of copyright on the availability of archival materials, and to clarify what sorts of materials can and cannot be published online because of copyright provisions.

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